Asking Questions 60a6d011771e9

A Case Study in the Value of Powerful Questions

May 20, 2021
Empower your team members to make decisions, and you will be rewarded with better decisions.

Effective leaders spend much of their time coaching the people around them. They see the value that asking questions provides as they empower people and help in their development.

A friend recently told me about his experience as he began to use powerful questions in leadership. One of the people on his team had sent a message to the effect, “We need a decision on this.” As he related this to me, it seemed almost like an ultimatum and that she was clearly laying the responsibility on him. Since he and I had discussed The Power in Powerful Questions just days earlier, he opted out of his normal pattern of providing a quick decision.

Instead, he paused a couple of minutes and wrote a reply that contained a few questions, along the lines of: “What do we need to accomplish through this decision?”; “What are some of the alternatives that you have already considered, and are there others that we should think about?”; “What are the major issues that we face in making this decision?”

Knowing my friend, he probably ended his note with a clear and positive statement, such as, “I hope these questions are helpful as you formulate your recommended course of action.”

A few days went by without a reply from the team member, and my friend began to have second thoughts. He had stepped out of his normal pattern. What was she thinking about that? That he was shirking his responsibility of making all the decisions? Or maybe that he was hanging her out to dry on this particularly difficult decision, or that their relationship had been fractured for some reason?

A few more days went by and he received a reply that both pleased and surprised him.

Her reply to his questions, which were in place of a quick decision, began with this statement, “Thank you for not making this decision but rather empowering and encouraging me to make a recommendation.” She then laid out the decision that she thought they should make along with the logic that supported it. As he read her recommended decision, he realized that it was much better than any decision that he would have thought of in this case. Being the person closest to this decision and responsible for its implementation, she had the most knowledge and the best perspective. Therefore, with some encouragement, she was able to reach the best decision.

By asking a few powerful questions, my friend had empowered the team member to think deeply and reach a great decision. As this pattern continues, she will no doubt be more satisfied and enthusiastic about her job responsibilities. And, with continued practice and coaching, she will grow in her ability to analyze situations and make decisions. And, by having the responsibility for both the decision and the implementation, she is now highly motivated to make it happen successfully. She is fully bought in.

Many people, when they reach a position of leadership, think that their knowledge and ability to make decisions got them there and that, as the leader, they are now responsible for making most, if not all, decisions. This could not be further from the truth. The most effective leaders make few decisions. They are responsible for the quality of decisions, but one of the greatest purposes of leadership is to develop the people around them. To do so requires asking the powerful questions that “sharpen the saw” for people in the organization so that those closest to the implementation are prepared and able to make those good decisions.

As a leader, are you more likely to make decisions or to ask the questions that help others think and decide well? Do you view this delegating of decision-making as losing your power or empowering others? Which of these, your power or empowering others, is more important to you?

Ken Vaughan is president of New Horizon Partners, Inc., a business strategy consulting and leadership coaching and development organization. 

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